Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are you a hankerer or a modernist?

I have a theory that there are two types of people around public transport in Melbourne: hankerers for the past and modernists.

Hankerers pine for an era when trains were government run, trams had conductors and buses were all run by family companies with a handful of routes (no doubt with different liveries). They write columns for The Age bemoaning the loss of tram conductors and how much better things were in the good old days. They exist in enthusisast groups or write on internet discussion boards. If employed in the industry they may occupy non-managerial positions like drivers, signallers and station staff. Some hankerers are even too young to remember the real past and live in an imagined past. Or they don’t remember the bad bits, eg the past lack of Sunday service or the sparse timetables of former branch lines (like Mornington which today receives buses every 20 minutes until 10pm seven days per week).

Hankerers may have an intense interest in a single mode and don’t always see the system as a network or accept different roles for different modes. For example they may advocate new orbital railway lines along routes where improved buses would deliver similar results for less. Neither are economic concepts such as social utility and opportunity cost their strong point. They may view modernists as bureaucrats and accountants. Like the future the past is a moving feast and there are no doubt hankerers who still vouch for the superiority of steam. Or parcel vans with conductors running between trackside factories that closed 40 years ago!

Modernists see themselves as rational and hankerers as deluded or merely backward. They dominate policy and management. Transit geeks with IT degrees seem to be modernists, as are many who’ve experienced systems overseas. Almost anything recently that has been done, from automated ticketing, station destaffing, rail franchising, unified signage and IT applications like SMS alerts, Tram Tracker and online journey planners have been modernist projects.

I should disclose that I lean towards the modernists, although not uncritically so. I laud reform like removing train guards or tram conductors if frequencies are doubled with the savings. Similarly deleting a quiet former munitions factory route plied by the ‘brown bus’ does not worry me if it frees resources for a parallel main route run at clockface frequencies harmonised with trains. I am more ambiguous about level crossing removals. They are expensive but may be a corollary to increased train throughput. Occasionally they are done well (Nunawading) but they mostly introduce urban blight (Huntingdale, Oakleigh, Albion or Sunshine) or an isolated platform waiting environment (Elsternwick or Boronia).

However I suspect that in being a modernist I form a minority. At least in this city, if the letters pages are anything to go by, vocal opinion favours the hankerer over the modernist.

Why is modernism in public transport a minority sentiment? There could be several reasons. Even if you’re under thirty you may still remember tram conductors and staffed smaller stations, provided you grew up here. Then there’s the track record. Service reliability and ticketing issues have sullied the standing of modernist projects like rail franchising and three successive new ticketing systems. The linking of scratch and Metcard ticketing with reduced staffing in the 1990s only added fuel to the hankerer’s ire. In contrast later gains such as Sunday buses, text alert services and extended concession ticket eligibility, seem to have (perhaps unfairly) been less influential in the public mind.

Go over to Perth and it’s a different story. No one hankers for the public transport of thirty to fifty years ago. Instead the popular memory is of the old diesel trains and how electrification and expansion transformed its rails from the nation’s worst to the nation’s best. And beyond the rails, the buses are more logical, legible and connected than they used to be, while the dark shed-like interchanges they served are nearly all gone. Perhaps except for senior citizens, who can still recall trams and trolleys, public transport’s past in Perth was indeed the ‘bad old days’.

An objective comparison reveals aspects of Perth’s public transport less developed than Melbourne’s. For instance stations with customer service (as opposed to security) staff are rare. Ditto for NightRider buses. Perth’s ticket vending machines do less than ours and the versatile daily tickets we take for granted are unavailable in Perth. People there still complain but don’t hanker for the past. Modernism’s hold in Perth is such that old concepts like returning trams are presented in modern terms, for example the ‘knowledge arc’ light rail proposal.

Why do we need modernism if we want better public transport? The main reason is its mindset and willingness to try something new. One old idea that no one uses public transport on a Sunday. Sunday train and tram frequencies doubled, buses gained Sunday service while fares were reduced. Patronage boomed. Similar success stories can be told about cross-suburban SmartBus routes and the NightRider services that were doubled. And again for our bus reviews where implementation improved connectivity and legibility.

More recently we are starting to rethink train operating patterns. Some may lose their expresses or be forced to change trains. Hankerers may be over-represented in opposition. However we cannot afford to turn our back on the ‘greater good’ capacity, reliability and frequency gains that timetable and operating pattern changes may entail.

The same also goes for buses. It was recently related to me how transport consultant Jarrett Walker gives people a certain amount of string to form an ideal bus network at public consultation sessions. The string could either form a network of many infrequent routes or a smaller number of direct, frequent services. This sort of engagement exposes the trade-offs needed and encourages flexibility amongst those who may previously vehemently oppose changes to ‘their’ route.

Good service planners seek to break the stalemate between limited resources and the ability to provide service improvements by reappraising the existing network’s efficiency. If hankerers are too strong (or are perceived as such) service changes will not happen, even where benefits outweight the costs. Managers will be too timid to innovate. ‘No change’ will be the path of least resistance that minimises political pressure. Long term, not changing comes at a cost; eg routes and timetables lagging modern travel needs, as ocurred on much of the Melbourne bus network during the 1990s.

Healthy modernism can be a powerful defence against inertia. Here its contribution is to ensure that public transport is planned in the public interest, patronage is maximised and the best possible network operates for the resources available. While preserving the best of the past is laudable, on no account should it degenerate into an unthinking hankering that stymies worthwhile (but sometimes risky) progress.


Tony said...

I think it's a bit more complicated than that Peter. What you're describing sounds to me a bit more like 'old-school enthusiasts' versus 'new age enthusiasts'. Both have a preoccupation with physical infrastructure, engineering detail and aesthetic 'look and feel'. The main difference is the old-schoolers tend to reach backward and the new-agers to lurch forward, often on faddish bandwagons.

But at the same time, the 'hankerers' who enthuse about brown buses and steam trains aren't always the same 'hankerers' who want tram conductors back or want to reverse privatisation. And 'modernists' who like smartcards and O-bahns often aren't the same 'modernists' as those who call for pulse timetables and more efficient operating patterns. These kinds of distinctions separate 'enthusiasts' of both camps from 'user advocates' who are more focussed on outcomes and passenger experience.

And user advocates also vary, of course. Some are more intent on reversing what they see as bad mistakes made in the past. Others are more keen to apply planning innovations from elsewhere that were never a feature of our system but which they think could improve it. In the PTUA I like to think we do both where appropriate. But what most user advocates agree on is that you need to plan what kind of system you want before you go about engineering it.

Riccardo said...

You might like to think the PTUA does, Tony, I'm not sure it does though.

mc said...

The bad old days might be extended to the time of the Sydney Olympics. It was only in roughly 2001 that a map of all Melbourne routes became available (not counting the latest Melway).

Also, Tony is right in that enthusiasts can be categorised in more complicated ways than "likes a certain perception of the past" and "likes possible futures". Though I suspect Peter's dichotomy holds much weight.